Four Minneapolis police officers were fired on Tuesday, authorities said, amid protests and outrage after a viral video showed one of them kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed black man who cried that he could not breathe and later died.
A bystander recorded George Floyd telling the officers “I cannot breathe” as he is pinned to the ground, and as an increasingly distraught crowd of onlookers pleads with the officer to move his knee.
The officers involved in the incident have not been identified. But Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, announced Tuesday afternoon that their employment had been terminated.
“It is the right decision for our city; the right decision for our community; it is the right decision for the Minneapolis Police Department,” Frey said at a news conference with Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. “We’ve stated our values, and ultimately we need to live by them.”
The Minneapolis Police Department originally said Floyd, who was stopped Monday night on a report of a forgery, had “physically resisted officers.” In a Tuesday interview with North News on Facebook, Frey said that as additional information was revealed, “it became clear that the original statement was not accurate.”
The quick dismissals of the officers contrast with several previous high-profile incidents, including the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York. After other deadly encounters between civilians and police that have prompted protests, officers involved have often retained their jobs for a time – including the New York police officer recorded with his arm around Garner’s neck, who was fired five years later.
Arradondo said during the news conference that he had decided to ask the FBI to investigate after receiving “additional information” about the incident from a community source. He declined to elaborate further.
Calling in the FBI was “the very clear and obvious choice when you watch the footage provided in the civilian video,” Frey said.
“For five minutes we watched as a white officer pressed his knee into the neck of a black man who was helpless,” the mayor said. “For five whole minutes. This was not a matter of a split-second poor decision.”
Minneapolis-area law enforcement has faced criticism in recent years over its use of force. In a 2016 incident that drew widespread condemnation, an officer with the suburban St. Anthony Police Department shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop, the aftermath of which was streamed live on Facebook.
And in 2017, a Minneapolis police officer fatally shot 40-year-old Justine Damond after she called 911 to report a possible assault near her house. Damond’s death followed the acquittal of the officer who killed Castile, exacerbating the already tense relations between law enforcement and the community.
Floyd’s death came amid a national conversation about the rush to judgment of unarmed black men, both by police and members of the public. Earlier this month, authorities in Georgia arrested two white men after one in February shot and killed a black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, telling police they believed he was involved in local burglaries. Authorities initially had said the actions of the men, father and son Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael, were in accordance with the law.
And on Monday, social media was largely consumed with the story of a white woman, Amy Cooper, who called 911 on a black birdwatcher who told her to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park, telling a dispatcher that he had threatened her life.
Darnella Frazier, who filmed the police encounter with Floyd, was on her way to see friends when she saw the incident unfolding outside a Cup Foods grocery store on the south side of Minneapolis. She quickly began recording the encounter in a 10-minute video later shared to Facebook.
“When I walked up, he was already on the ground,” Frazier said in a different Facebook video. “The cops … they was pinning him down by his neck and he was crying…They wasn’t trying to take him serious.”
As more people gathered around the encounter outside the grocery store, the man said his whole body was in pain. Frazier recalled that his face was being pressed so hard against the ground that his nose was bleeding.
Witnesses begged the white officer to take his knee off the man’s neck.
“You’re going to just sit there with your knee on his neck?” one bystander said on the video.
Minutes later, the man appeared to be motionless on the ground, his eyes closed and head lying against the road.
“Bro, he’s not even f—— moving!” one bystander pleaded to police. “Get off of his neck!”
Another asked, “Did you kill him?”
Later, the unconscious man was loaded onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. Bystanders who remained in front of Cup Foods pointed at the two officers and said the incident would haunt them “for the rest of your life.”
“The police killed him, bro, right in front of everybody,” Frazier said on Facebook. “…He was crying, telling them like, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and everything…They killed this man.”
The case will be separately investigated by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which, according to the Star Tribune, investigates most in-custody deaths.
The agency said in a statement that it would present its findings to the county prosecutor’s office for review.
As it circulated late into the day Tuesday, the video continued to draw denunciations. In neighboring St. Paul, Mayor Melvin Carter, a Democrat, said on Twitter that it was “one of the most vile and heartbreaking images I’ve ever seen,” adding, “This must stop now.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., described the incident as “yet another horrifying and gut-wrenching instance of an African American man dying.” She called for “immediate action,” including a thorough outside investigation and accountability for those involved.
“Justice must be served for this man and his family, justice must be served for our community, and justice must be served for our country,” she said in a statement shared on Twitter.
Floyd was a father and a security guard who worked at Conga Latin Bistro and had previously lived in Texas, said Jovanni Thunstrom, the restaurant’s owner. He described Floyd as the kind of employee who would go out of his way to help a customer, offering a safe ride home to those who had too much to drink and once helping a woman who locked her keys in her car.
“When I heard the news, I saw the video, I couldn’t believe it was him,” Thunstrom told The Washington Post, calling Floyd a “brother” and a friend. “He was a great person, a great worker. I’m going to miss him.”
Thunstrom said he could not understand the officers’ treatment of Floyd.
“They are supposed to serve and protect, but Floyd didn’t get either,” he said. “He didn’t get served or protected. He got choked.”
Protesters gathered Tuesday afternoon at the intersection where the encounter unfolded. Earlier in the day, the mayor urged demonstrators to practice social distancing because of the coronavirus pandemic but said he understood the desire to protest.
“If you’re sad, I get it,” Frey said. “If you’re angry, that makes complete sense. If you feel the need to protest, of course we want to make sure that people are able to express themselves.”
The Washington Post